It would be easy to label the burgeoning creative scene in Budapest’s District VII as merely just another hipster fad. In fact many do. Yet when walking around District VII (the old Jewish neighborhood) in this eclectic metropolis, one becomes aware of two things: young Hungarians are an incredibly creative bunch, and the proliferation of funky shops and bars here is more a case of working with what you’ve got than a passing trend. Last week I took a tour of this ever-changing neighborhood with BudapestFlow. Created by Attila Höfle, BudapestFlow guides visitors through galleries, bookshops, street food stalls, murals and the now world famous ruin pubs. When I signed up for the tour I expected a pub crawl and readied my liver for a night of beer gulping. What I got was a cultural experience and insight into a movement based on community and creativity. Most surprisingly, I didn’t see a single flannel, twirled up mustache or any other hipster cliches.
Attila Höfle led us past the Rumbach Synagogue on Rumbach Sebestyén Utca towards a parking lot encircled by multistory buildings. Our tour group consisted of my wife Anita and me, two German girls, a guy from California with his Akita, a young Hungarian woman and Kristóf Sztojanovics, a representative from the local tourist board. A small, wiry man with glasses and quick to smile, Höfle pointed up to a sprawling mural behind us. In newsprint style it depicted the famous Hungarian 6-3 football victory over England in 1953. “So yes it’s funny that we take such pride in this event still,”Attila said chuckling. “But we’re a small country so we have to hold onto our small successes.” Across the street another mural, this one an abstract interpretation of a Rubik’s Cube, brightened up an otherwise dull fire wall.
Next we popped into Printa, a design studio/screen printer/café selling unique postcards, clothing and one of a kind stationary. I found their lampshades made of used and crumpled plastic bottles particularly cool. Afterwards we made our way into another design shop, DrumDrum. Full of handmade local jewelry and colorful clothing, DrumDrum also had a vintage bicycle for sale. Made by a local designer, the bike features wooden wheels, pedals and handlebars. Hipsteresque it may be, but maybe hipper than your average hipster.
On Kazinczy Utca we piled into a tiny place named LomoGraphy. Specializing in analog photography, this space also doubles as a café. The shop gives fans of creative retro/film a place to not only buy cameras, accessories and bags, but processes film and offers workshops. Their plastic spinner camera is especially eye catching: pull the string and the camera spins around creating a panoramic image unlike anything I’ve seen before. Kőleves kert (Stone Soup Garden), just down the street from Lomography, was our next stop. Containing all the ingredients of a typical ruin pub—colorful vintage patio furniture, a vivid mural and cheap booze —Kőleves kert was just begining to fill up with Friday night revelers. Recently painted by Portugese artist Akacorleone, the mural here is based on Jankó Holló, a Hungarian folk tale. A mash up of yellow, turquoise, purple and green shapes depicts the story’s characters, which include a raven and a fish.
One block over we came to another mural which spans two towering building-sides. “This is my wall,” Kristóf Sztojanovics said. “We are trying to encourage tourists to not only come into central Budapest for partying, but to explore the cities around the capital.” The mural shows a map of Budapest with names of neighboring towns in clouds floating around. In bold text it says “Budapest nem ekkora”(Budapest is not only this) pointing to a highlighted spot indicating the city center. “Hanem ekkora”(But also this) reads another caption pointing to the rest of the city. It’s a great concept only that it’s written in Hungarian, which means it’s probably lost on 90% of tourists. The neighboring wall features a massive falcon against a circuit board backdrop. “This is a sacred bird for Hungarians and celebrates our heritage of falconry,” Kristof told us.
Shafts of soft late-afternoon sunlight shone through the gaps between buildings as we continued down Dob Utca. Behind yet another piece of street art, this one a tile mosaic with two giant eyes, we came to Ricsi’s Jewish Street Food. In classic District VII style, there was an empty lot with mismatched furniture and a small kitchen with wooden pallet walls. While we didn’t have time to eat, I’m dead set on returning. The food looked absolutely mouth watering.
Further on Dob Utca we came upon yet another mural. This one was undoubtedly my favorite. On one side was a bearded male character in black and white; his body made of apartment windows and apartment buildings sprouting out of his head. On the other side, in vibrant color, a beautiful woman adorned with golden jewels and a crown of fabulous golden palaces. The two are holding hands. “Mindenkinek van egy varosa” (there is a city for everyone) read a banner below the figures. Painted by Dávid Tripsánszki and Dorka Jakócs, the work symbolizes the two sides of the city: Buda, wealthy and glamorous—and Pest, industrious and blue collar. All this street art is no accident. It’s a collaboration between the city and artists both local and foreign. Many of the murals were created during last year’s Színes Város (“Colorful City”) Festival.
It was now 5pm on a Friday, and I became aware that the streets were relatively empty. Wasn’t this the famous District VII, a place of marauding drunken tourists and raucous street life? Walking into Massolit Books & Cafe I realized I had it all wrong. This was a neighborhood like any other: people live here, work here and have created an artistic community here. It just so happens to also be full of unique bars that foreigners find interesting and cheap.
Inside the bookshop a few people sat around quietly talking, reading and writing. The old black and white tiled floor caught my eye. An exhibition of surreal oil paintings was on display in an adjoining room. People gave soft smiles as we exchanged glances. The back door opened to a calm garden patio with a little patch of tomatoes and peppers growing beneath the monolithic buildings all around. The cozy shop was a place I could imagine spending all day in.
Back on Kazinczy Utca our group took a peek into Karavan- Budapest Street Food. A collection of permanent food truck-style stalls offered a cornucopia of foods: Italian pastas, small batch ice cream, hamburgers and Hungarian Mangalica sausages among others. Unfortunately food was the last thing on my mind. About two hours earlier Anita and I had gobbled down monstrous burgers at Bodega Konyha across town.
After Karavan we entered the most famous ruin pub of them all—Szimpla Kert. This was the only stop I had already been to before the tour. Szimpla Kert is a bit hard to describe. It’s as if someone collected all the furniture and knick knacks from an apartment building over a forty year span and mixed them all together. Add in some colorful lights, junky art, a bar and a Trabant. “To be honest I never come here on Saturday nights,” Attila told us. “If you come on Sunday mornings to the farmers market you have the chance to meet local people, not just drunken tourists.” Szimpla Kert also serves food and hosts art and music shows. It’s a community center of sorts.
Most of us had a pint of beer and chatted about our where we were from and what had brought us to Budapest. 20 minutes later, our glasses empty, we were off to our next and final stop.
In an austere grey communist-era building on Somogyi Béla Utca, Attila led us up a twisting stairwell to Müszi. Described as a complex cultural space, Müszi operates as a venue for various creative outlets and social projects. NGOs have offices here, there is a workspace-for-rent program and concerts and art shows are regular. There is of course a bar/café and dogs are just as welcome as humans. It made me genuinely happy to see such a place amidst all the crass consumerism in the surrounding shopping mall. Young people working together in a community-based environment as opposed to our all too familiar competitive me vs. you society. But for all I know, Müszi could be a completely dysfunctional disaster full of competition, rivalry and daily dog fights. Probably not, but it’s an entertaining thought.
Our tour ended here and Anita and I said our goodbyes to Attila and the group. It was a breath of fresh air to visit all of the amazingly inventive, creative and mold-breaking spots throughout Budapest’s most happening neighborhood. I was also glad the tour hadn’t ended with me drunkenly stumbling around like other Irish, English and American young men commonly seen on weekend evenings in Budapest. That being said, the first thing I did after the tour was buy a couple of beers, sit on a wall at Blaha Lujza Square, and join the masses in Budapest’s Saturday night revelry.
For District VII tours: BudapestFlow
Ruin Pub Guide: ruinpubs.com
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